Cognitive dissonance. Bear with me, I promise you’ll have experienced this at some point. You just might not have known it at the time.
I’m pretty sure you don’t like to be tricked into responding to clickbait, even if it’s not the trashy stuff. You know – “11 facts about fat cats that will literally blow your mind!” – that sort of thing.
And yet, if you’re here because the title of this article piqued your curiosity, you should probably know why, because, well… it’s actually kind of interesting! The clue is in the title.
Firstly, it matters that the title references a specific term. It immediately targets a lot of my readers. Readers who probably think themselves pretty savvy when it comes to understanding the psychological principles behind user experience. Readers who wonder just what it is that this article has got to say that they don’t know already. Readers who might have unwittingly just experienced that cognitive dissonance at reading the title.
Hang on, congenital what? I hear some of you ask.
Cogitative dissonance…tsk…now you’ve got me doing it…cognitive dissonance is a state of mental discomfort that occurs when you’re presented with new information that challenges your existing attitudes, beliefs, ideas, or values about yourself or the world around you.
There’s two important factors that affect this psychological conflict. Firstly the effect is felt more when the dissonance is not opposed by less conflicting (consonant) information presented at the same time, and secondly, the dissonant element seems stronger when the matters at hand are perceived as important to you.
Leon Festinger’s theory about cognitive dissonance focuses on how people strive to maintain some kind of internal consistency. When presented with information that challenges existing beliefs or attitudes, people subconsciously tend to feel uncomfortable. Ths induces a strong motivation to reduce that inconsistency by taking action.
Many will take steps to avoid situations where the dissonance is strong or try to prevent it happening in the future by removing the inconsistency. That preservation of internal consistency feeds a desire to understand the reason for the dissonance – which might be why you’re here, reading this article, or why you sometimes find yourself clicking on trashy clickbait even though you really wouldn’t normally.
This of course is a theory well known (and often over-used) by marketers who deliberately target audiences with the intention of creating a cognitive dissonance in the hope that you’ll buy their product.
In the book Universal Principles of Design, the authors give a great example of this with an advertisement for diamonds prompting viewers to show how much they care by buying their loved one a diamond. The dissonance comes from knowing that they love their partner, while being pressured to prove it. Does not buying the diamond mean they love their partner less? What to do?
As the book says, options for relieving the internal conflict might be to trivialize the product by thinking of diamonds just as compressed carbon; or to consciously recognize that the advert is trying to make a hard sell and you’re not going to fall for that trick, or of course you could buy the diamonds to show how much you care.
Unfortunately the latter option relieves you of more than just internal conflict, but all too often it’s this kind of choice that people find easiest to respond with, because a physical conscious action that pleases someone (or yourself) seems like a more progressive step than fighting back.
However, it’s ideally the fighting back that is the best step to take – understanding the deliberate ploy on the part of marketers to use cognitive dissonance as a targeted and manipulative dark pattern to get you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise.
The reason this tactic is so common on twitter and the rest of the web is because there are so many bits of information all crying out for your attention. You can’t read them all, so you respond to the ones that are of interest to you or attract your attention the most. Cognitive dissonance is just one of many tools used in order to get that attention. By targeting specific audiences and by realizing that Twitter plays to their strength due to the 140 character limit – meaning that the dissonance is likely to stand out due to lack of other more consonant information.
Understanding how cognitive dissonance is being used against you means you can use this knowledge. Know that when you read headlines on Twitter and elsewhere on the web, and you feel uncomfortably compelled to click on the link, then you might just be feeling psychologically motivated by cognitive dissonance because the words create a conflict with what you thought you believed. Know that it’s deliberate. Know that you don’t have to click. Know your own mind. Use other more sound judgements about whether the content is likely to be relevant or of interest.
Cognitive dissonance isn’t always a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be something that happens to you. It’s not something that’s reserved for people selling diamonds or writing clickbait. Understanding it means you can also use it yourself – in a good way of course!
You can pack cognitive dissonance into your toolbox and use it yourself when you need to. Use it where you want to influence and persuade people to change their beliefs or to give up their time and attention to participate in an activity. But use it wisely – don’t just create the dissonance but also provide a means by which people can easily alleviate the dissonance in a way that achieves your objective as well as hopefully feeling good about themselves in the process.
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance; (Amazon.co.uk) Leon Festinger, 1970 edition
Cognitive Consequences of Forced Compliance; (washington.edu), PDF, Leon Festinger & James Carlsmith (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1959)
Cognitive Dissonance Theory; (socialemotiveneuroscience.org), PDF, E. Harmon-Jones (Encyclopedia of Human Behaviour).